NAU, Arizona State meet to open season Thursday
TEMPE - Todd Graham has spent nine months giving Arizona State a makeover, re-energizing the team and its fan base by changing everything from the style of football the Sun Devils play to the style of the football offices.
Now he finally gets a chance to lead them onto the field.
After nearly a year of hype, the Todd Graham Era officially begins in the desert Thursday night, when the Sun Devils play Northern Arizona in revamped Sun Devil Stadium.
"We talk about maximizing each opportunity," Graham said. "What matters is that you get better every day and that you win."
Graham has gotten the most out of his opportunity so far.
Known for winning but also for jumping ship - four schools in seven years - he's spent his brief time in the desert trying to rebuild interest in the program while squelching any concerns that Arizona State was his latest springboard to the next this-is-where-I-want-to-be job.
By almost all accounts, Graham has succeeded.
Stumping like a politician for a job he already had, Graham spent nearly as much time shaking hands and talking with people outside the program as he did with those in it. His come-and-see-us campaign has worked, generating an excitement the Sun Devils haven't had in the Valley of Sun in quite a while.
Graham also overhauled the program from the inside out, instilling a level of discipline that had been missing under previous regimes and creating a bridge to the past by reaching out to former players and refurbishing the football offices with all sorts of historical photos and artifacts.
He's also gotten the Sun Devils to play fast.
It took the Sun Devils a little while to get used to Graham's go-all-the-time style, particularly during spring drills, but have gotten the hang of it more as they've gotten closer to the season.
That might not bode well for Northern Arizona in the opener. The Lumberjacks are smaller, less athletic and don't have nearly as much depth, so keeping up could get tough Thursday night.
"The style of offense they are going to run is up-tempo," Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers sad. "They are going to go no-huddle as fast as the officials will put the ball on the ground, they try to snap it and go. It will be very important that our guys know and are on the same page when the ball is snapped. There is very little time to communicate in-between plays."
The tempo and the skill differential should make this any easy opener for the Sun Devils.
They just can't afford to look at it that way.
The Lumberjacks have lost eight straight games to Arizona State in the series that dates to 1915 and this season were picked to finish seventh in the Big Sky Conference preseason coaches' poll.
Still, Northern Arizona is a team that has some talent, particularly on offense. Junior running back Zach Bauman is a handful to bring down and is the first player in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons, leading the Big Sky last year.
Senior quarterback Cary Grossart threw for over 1,700 yards and 16 TDs last season while ranking fifth in the Football Championship Subdivision leaders in passing efficiency at 156.0.
The combo helped Northern Arizona rank 14th in FCS for total offense at 434.5 yards per game.
"We have focused a lot on their personnel and what we have to stop, but the key is us focusing; the key is us," Graham said. "The key for us defensively is to get guys to do what they are coached to do every play, not 80 or 90 percent of the plays but every play. Take away what you're supposed to take away."
The Lumberjacks haven't had much success against Arizona State since both schools were members of the Border Conference way back when and haven't beaten an FBS opponent since 1987. They were within seven points into the third quarter against the Sun Devils their last meeting in 2010, though, and put a scare into Arizona a few years before that.
The Lumberjacks don't see this game as a chance to roll over, but to pull off a program-defining upset.
"Everybody knows who we're playing. Everybody on this team, this program knows what this game, opportunity, represents," Souers. "I don't have any doubt at all that we have done everything we can to prepare at this point."